What is My Business Worth?

Syracuse, NY – March 17, 2006 – Small-business owners want and need to know what their business is worth.

The short answer is it depends. It depends on the purpose of the valuation, the standard of value, majority or minority interest, going concern or liquidation. There are many factors that affect value, and experts differ in their analysis. In addition, the IRS will often be looking at the valuation results, and these results can generate significantly different values for the same entity. The outcome often leads to business owners scratching their head in confusion.

The more common purposes for valuation are estate and gift taxes; buy-sell agreements; divorce; buying or selling a business; dissenting stockholder actions; and Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), according to “Valuing a Business” by Shannon Pratt, etal.. The standard of value used depends on the purpose of the valuation.

Standards of Value

Fair market value (FMV), the most commonly known standard of value, is the amount at which a property would change hands between a willing buyer and seller, where neither party has a compulsion to buy or sell, and both possess knowledge of the relevant facts. FMV will typically include discounts for minority interests and lack of marketability. It is the standard of value for estate and gift tax valuations and ESOPs, among others. ESOP valuations also have to comply with Department of Labor ERISA regulations.

In cases of divorce or dissenting stockholder actions, Fair Value typically applies. Fair Value differs from FMV in that it is defined by state laws and its definition varies from state to state.

Investment value or strategic value is the value determined in the eye of the beholder. In this instance, the buyer or seller has an individual preference or strategic reason for the transaction. Investment Value is most relevant for purchase and sale transactions, and is typically higher than FMV.

In buy-sell agreements, the parties usually negotiate the standard of value and can use any of the value standards stated above. However, the buy-sell price can be challenged in situations of divorce, dissenting stockholder or estate and gift transactions, etc., if it does not conform to the standard of value applicable to the circumstances.

Practical Application

Let’s consider the situation of setting a price to sell the business. The standard of value in this instance is typically investment value because the prospective buyer will have a specific purchase motivation, e.g. a job, elimination of a competitor or perhaps expansion in an industry. Sellers generally sell on past performance; buyers buy on the future performance.

What approach or method can be used to calculate value?

There are three – asset-based approach, income approach and market approach. The asset-based approach uses the fair market value of the NET assets of the business, and is relevant for companies that have significant capital investments and modest profit performance. The downside is that it can understate goodwill the owner has generated in his or her company.

The income approach derives company value using a multiple of company earnings/cash flows. It is relevant for service companies, among others, and reflects the company’s unique performance results.

The market approach is similar to determining the value of your house to sell or challenging a property assessment. The business is compared to other comparable privately-held businesses and/or public companies, and the value is extrapolated from those comparisons. The difficulty using this approach is finding truly comparable data for private companies (e.g. my insurance agency is worth the same as an agency in Peoria, which sold in 1999?) or using public company stock prices as a proxy for small business (e.g. if Google is worth 80 times earnings, so am I).
Finally, there are “rules of thumb” for many industries that may ignore the unique value items about your specific company, but can be a handy sanity check.

For this example, the income approach is useful because it takes into account the unique performance characteristics and operating results of the company, plus the actual reported data is available from financials and tax returns. The valuator typically analyzes the previous five years of profit/cash flows performance and adjusts for unusual, excessive or non-recurring revenues and expenses to determine the prospective future earnings/cash flows.

The future earnings/cash flows is then converted into an estimate of present value using a capitalization rate or multiple. Investment in small privately-held companies is risky and requires a greater return, which reduces the multiple (the higher the multiple, the higher the value). Using a broad generalization regarding multiples, we’ll say the small business owner can estimate his or her value using a multiple of between 3 to 8 times the earnings/cash flows, depending on the company’s management, performance and industry. The higher multiple is more appropriate for extremely well-run companies in growth industries.

In cases where an owner intends to gift, rather than sell the business, he or she can take the value above (investment value) and apply discounts for lack of marketability, minority interest, key man, etc., which results in the fair market value. If this was a case of divorce, statutory adjustments would be made to determine a fair value standard.

The previous information is a very simplified and generalized example of what would be done in a valuation. Calculating value is not a static, uniform process. It requires small business owners to remain active and informed when deciding with their financial advisor/valuator what approach or method best suits them, considering they know their business operations better than anyone. The best way to determine value weighs on the owners ability to understand and take part in the process. The results depend on it.